China Aims for Petaflop Computer in 2010

China has stepped up investment in its homegrown Godson microprocessor and hopes to build its first petaflop-class supercomputer using the chip in 2010, one of the country's senior engineers said on Tuesday.

China made a decision 20 years ago not to invest in microprocessor development, and it was only in 2001 that it reversed course and began to make a serious effort in this area. As a result, its technology trails far behind that of world leaders like Intel, Advanced Micro Devices and IBM.

But China has now made a long-term commitment to Godson and since 2006 has increased funding for it "quite a lot," said Zhiwei Xu, CTO of the Institute of Computing Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The country still lags behind its international rivals in chip development but is doing its best to catch up, he said in a presentation at the Hot Chips conference in Palo Alto, California.

China has produced four Godson processors, the latest being the Godson 2f. It struck a deal last year with STMicroelectronics to manufacture and sell the chips, and they are now used by 40 companies in set-top boxes, laptops and other products, Xu said. The commercial name for the chips is Loongson.

Next month China will complete the design of a new version of the chip, the Godson 2g, which integrates more functionality on the silicon. Next year it hopes to include graphics capabilities on the same silicon as the main processor, much as AMD and Intel are doing today.

China is also hard at work on the Godson 3, which is aimed primarily at servers and will be the first Godson to use a multi-core design. A version of the chip due in 2009 will have four general-purpose cores, and four specialized cores for tasks like scientific computing. The general-purpose cores will run at 1GHz and be similar to those on the Godson 2, Xu said.

China hopes the Godson 3 will allow it to build a high-performance computer in 2010 that can perform at one petaflop per second, Xu said. That would match the IBM system based on an advanced Cell processor that led this year's Top500 list of the world's fastest supercomputers.

Asked after his speech if the goal is realistic, Xu said, "it's possible, but it will be hard." Besides developing the system, China will have to find markets to sell it to, he noted. The U.S. is skittish about buying Chinese equipment for government-related work for security reasons.

Godson's use in PCs has been held back by the fact that it is based on a MIPS core, as opposed to the x86 design used by Intel and AMD. To run Windows it has to use translation software to achieve x86-compatibility, and the Godson loses a lot of its native MIPS power in the process.

The Godson 3 adds new instructions that speed the x86-to-MIPS translation by a factor of 10, Xu said. "Our goal is to eventually reach 80 percent of the native MIPS performance," he said. "Right now we are at 40 percent, so we have a long way to go."

Tom Halfhill, a senior analyst at In-Stat, said the goal of a petaflop computer in 2010 might be realistic. "Why would they set a target they don't think they can achieve? That would only embarrass them," he said.

Halfhill was given an overview of the Godson in Beijing about two years ago. China was developing applications to run on Godson PCs, he said, including productivity software based on OpenOffice.

With its huge population, China can become a significant player in the microprocessor market even if it sells only domestically, he said.

"What China wants to do is develop its own technologies so that its manufacturers aren't dependent on paying licenses and other fees to other countries," he said.

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